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Happy Joe finds fun in life

DAVENPORT -- Twenty-five years and 69 restaurants later, Lawrence Whitty still is a happy Joe.

Lawrence Whitty
``We are not looking at any fast growth in the near future,'' he said of the Happy Joe's restaurant empire. ``We think the restaurant industry is overbuilt. We are going to see some shakeouts. We're pretty solid here and we're doing well.

``We're actually trying to put our eggs in different baskets such as real estate,'' he said.

Mr. Whitty's three children -- daughter Crystal and sons Larry and Tim -- are pretty much running the Happy Joe's operation.

``Dad now can sit back and watch the ball roll,'' he said. ``I watch the kids burn the midnight oil and I sneak out with the golf clubs.''

Mr. Whitty is proud of his family's effort to preserve the historic Davenport freighthouse which they converted into a two-restaurant, nightclub and comedy club complex.

``It feels good to save what would have been torn down,'' he said. ``What a gorgeous, gorgeous setting. I sit out on the terrace and just take it in.''

Mr. Whitty diversified years ago, opening a restaurant in north Davenport near Interstate 80. ``I opened the Iowa Machine Shed as a dedication to the Iowa farmer,'' he said. ``I was so busy with Happy Joe's, I didn't get the chance to spend the time in it I needed to, so I sold it to Mike Whalen. He's done very well by it.

``I also started Grandma Whitty's Cookies out at the mall,'' he said. ``I'm pretty much tapped on ideas. The next idea is Joe sitting in a hot tub in Colorado.''

Mr. Whitty owns a log cabin in the wilds of western Colorado, complete with a built-in hot tub. ``I don't spend that much time there -- the grandchildren won't let me go. Of course, I've got the cutest grandchildren in the world. You did know that, didn't you?''

Mr. Whitty wasn't always a pizzaman. He began as a baker in Crookston, Minn. His bakery made dough for local pizza parlors and Mr. Whitty soon realized he was in the wrong business.

As a baker he took dough, added sugar, cinnamon and nuts and sold it for 79 cents. ``The pizza place took the dough, added tomato sauce and cheese and sold it for $5 or $6,'' he said.

Mr. Whitty made the shift from bakery to pizza-maker working for Shakey's Pizza. One day he decided to write the company headquarters about what he thought was a brilliant idea: combining pizza with an ice cream parlor.

``The combination seemed logical to me,'' he said. Pizza-eaters mostly were young people. Most pizza parlors of those days were dumpy-looking places. Many adults enjoyed and grew up with ice cream parlors and loved sodas, malts and sundaes.

``I evaluated the situation,'' he said. ``Most people my age were not eating pizza because most pizza parlors looked like little holes in the wall -- like a bar. I figured if I put an ice cream and pizza parlor together, the old would talk about ice cream sodas and the young would talk about pizzas -- it would be a great combination.''

In the early 1970s, several Quad-Cities banks rejected his idea of a pizza and ice cream shop. In 1973 he opened his first ice cream/pizza parlor in the Village of East Davenport. ``I applied for loans at a lot of different banks but it was the Davenport Bank that finally got me an SBA (Small Business Association) loan.''

He wanted people of all ages to feel comfortable at Happy Joe's pizza parlors. ``At Happy Joe's, you now find people of all ages,'' he said. ``You'll always find someone in their 70s there. We've changed the surroundings and atmosphere to be family-oriented rather than strictly teenage or college fad food. Now you'll find four generations eating pizza, when a few years ago you would find just two.''

Since Happy Joe's first opened, Mr. Whitty has made some changes. He has toned down the red and white interiors and quieted the birthday party atmosphere a bit.

``We've added earth tones, put in carpeting and made nicer restaurants. We've found kids act according to how the restaurants are decorated -- when we made them nicer, the kids acted nicer, too.''

From his first restaurant to the many that now make up the Happy Joe's profile, Mr. Whitty has worked to ensure high quality. He is proud that only real cheese and meats are used in his pizzas. That's not the case with many pizza companies, he said.

``Through all of this, I've always had fun. Even when I was broke, I still had fun. I've always found fun in life. There are so many people out there who don't even know how to smile. They're so busy chasing a dollar they can't enjoy the one they just made.''

When Mr. Whitty isn't doing charity work for area children, he's on his 40-acre farm 10 minutes from his Bettendorf office. ``I've got horses, llamas, peacocks, geese. I cut my own hay, drive my own tractor. It's great fun.

``I grew up on a farm in Minot, Minn. We grew wheat, oats, flax and had pigs, sheep and cows. We were pretty much self-sufficient. By winter, the basement was full of potatoes and canned goods and the coal bin was full. I'll bet we didn't spent $200 through the entire winter. People could still live like that. There's no reason to be out there buying all this stuff.Four VCRs in a household -- it's ridiculous. Nobody talks to anybody anymore.''

Mr. Whitty regularly visits area schools to talk to kids about getting a job. ``I tell them how to go about getting a job and how to promote yourself. I talk to fourth- and fifth-graders for this.

``I go there and ask how many minutes have you talked to your dad in the past week. They get out their pencils and pieces of paper and work on it. One little boy told me `I talked to my dad six minutes last week.' It's terrible. We're getting what we deserve.

``Some of these kids don't even have fathers, and many of them don't know their grandparents. I can't imagine how they can grow up. I was surrounded by my entire family and, it still took 15 people to get me raised.''

Fortunately for us, a big part of Joe Whitty never grew up.

-- By Lisa Mohr (February 2, 1998)

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